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Australian Mythology - Animal And Miscellaneous Tales

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE tales which explain the origin of the individual habits, markings, or cries of animals and other living creatures are quite as typical, on the whole, for Australia as are the Maui myths for Polynesia, the wise and foolish brothers for Melanesia, or the trickster stories for Indonesia. A large pro-portion of the myth material thus far published from Australia belongs to this class, which, although often interesting in itself, offers less in the way of significant comparative material than other types. While some of these tales have a fairly wide distribution, they are usually rather local in character.

The practically wingless emu has naturally given rise to a number of such aetiological tales; and in New South Wales this distinctive characteristic of the bird is explained as follows. Dinewan, the emu, being the largest of the birds, was acknowledged as king by all the rest; and accordingly the Goomblegubbons, or bustards, were envious of him, the mother bustard being especially jealous of the mother emu because she could run so swiftly and fly so high. She resolved, therefore, to put an end to the mother Dinewan's supremacy by injuring her wings; and so one day, when she saw her enemy approaching, she sat down and folded her wings to look as though she had none. When Dinewan approached, she said, "Why don't you do as I do, and be without wings? All birds fly and have wings. The Dinewan as king of the birds should do with-out them. When the others see how clever I am, they will make the Goomblegubbons king." Dinewan took this to heart, and finally resolving not to lose the supremacy, she went and cut off her wings, after which she came proudly to where the Goomblegubbon was sitting and called out, "See, I have taken your advice and now I have no wings." Then the Goomblegubbon laughed, and jumping up, she danced about, flapping her wings and crying, "Aha! I have fooled you, old stumpy wings, for I, have my wings still"; and so saying, she flew away. The Dinewan was very angry at having thus been taken in, and after pondering as to how she could get her revenge, at last thought of a plan. She hid all her young ones but two and then walked off to the Goomblegubbon, accompanied only by the pair. When she arrived, she said to the Goomblegubbon, "Why don't you imitate me and have only two children? If you have many, they are hard to feed and can't grow up to be big birds like mine. The food that would make big birds of two would starve a dozen." The Goomblegubbon thought this over and determined to follow the advice, and so, killing all but two, she went with these survivors to see the Dinewan. Thereupon the latter asked her where all her children were, and the Goomblegubbon replied, "Oh, I have killed all but two. These will now have plenty to eat, and will grow to be as big as your children." Instead of congratulating her on her wisdom, as she had expected, the Dinewan said, "You are a cruel mother! Why, I have twelve children and find food for all of them." "But you have only two, you told me!" said the Goomblegubbon. "Oh, no, I have twelve; see," and she called her hidden children, who came out and marched proudly about. "Now, you can see that I told you the truth. Think of your murdered little ones, while I tell you your fate. By trickery, you robbed the Dinewans of their wings, and now forever, as long as the Dinewan has no wings, so long shall the Goomblegubbon lay only two eggs. We are quits at last! You have your wings, and I have my children."

In Victoria, the following tale is told of the kangaroo and the wombat. The two once lived together as great friends; but though the latter had a good hut, the former possessed none and slept in the open. One day a great rain fell, and the wombat made himself comfortable in his house, while the poor kangaroo had to remain outside in the wet; when at last the latter could bear it no longer, he went to the wombat's hut, and asked permission to sit in one corner. The wombat, however, refused, saying, "I want that place for my head," and moved over so as to lay it there; and when the kangaroo answered, "Well, this other place will do," the wombat re-plied, "No, I want to put my feet there. Thus he refused to let the kangaroo take refuge anywhere within the house; and so the latter, angry at such treatment, took a great stone and struck the wombat on the forehead, making it quite flat. When he had done this, he said, "You shall have a flat forehead and live in a dark hole in the ground"; and to this day the wombat has a flat forehead and lives in the ground. The wombat, however, was not without his revenge, for he threw his spear at the kangaroo and hit him in the back, the missile sinking into his spine. "Now," said the wombat, "that will always stick there, and you shall have a tail; and you will always use it when you run, and you shall never have a house."

Many of the tales of this type serve to explain the geographical distribution of certain animals or birds. Thus, one of the Queensland tribes says that once the fish-hawk had poisoned a water-hole with roots and went off to sleep until the fish should be stupefied and rise to the surface; but mean-while a pheasant came by, and seeing some of the fish, speared them. The hawk, discovering this on his return, awaited his opportunity and hid the pheasant's spears in a tree, but the owner climbed the tree and got his weapons, with which he took more of the fish-hawk's catch. Accordingly the latter hid the spears again, this time in the top of a very tall tree; but though the pheasant at last spied them, he was too lazy to climb so high, and going up-stream, he caused a flood to rise which swept the fish-hawk and his fish out to sea. So to this day the fish-hawk is found only along the shore, while the pheasant is always vainly looking for his spears on the upper branches of the tallest trees.

The snake-like head of the tortoise has doubtless suggested the following tale, which is told in South Australia. Originally the turtle possessed venomous fangs, and the snake had none; but since the latter lived on the shore, he was more liable to be attacked and killed than the turtle, who could take refuge under water or on an island. Accordingly the snake offered the turtle his head, if the latter would give him his fangs, and to this the turtle agreed; whence the snake now has fangs and can protect himself, while the turtle has a snake's head and takes refuge under water. Another tale 5 accounts for the red legs of the curlew. According to this, one day the hawk, who was the mother of Ouyan, the curlew, said to him, "Go out and get an emu for us. You are a man and a hunter, and must go and get food for us, and not stay in camp like a woman." Accordingly Ouyan took his spears and went off; but being unable to find an emu, and fearing the jeers of the women, he cut some flesh from his own legs and carried it home, telling his mother that he had gone far and seen little game, but that he had brought something, and that there would be enough for all. So the women cooked the flesh and ate it, but afterward were quite ill. The next day Ouyan went off again, and being un-successful as before, he brought back another piece of his flesh; but this time the women were suspicious, and thinking that the meat was unlike that of the emu, they determined to see what Ouyan did on the following day. Thus they found how he secured the meat, and when he returned as usual and then went to lie down saying that he was tired, they rushed up, and pulling off the covering which he had drawn over himself, disclosed his legs all raw and bleeding. They upbraided him for his laziness and evil tricks, and beat him, after which his mother said, "You shall have no more flesh on your legs here-after, and they shall be red and skinny forever." So Ouyan crawled away and became a curlew, and these birds cry all night, "Bou-you-gwai-gwai! Bou-you-gwai-gwai! which means, "O, my poor red legs! O, my poor red legs!"

Still another example 6 of this type of tale runs as follows. The crane was an expert fisherman, and one day when he had caught a large number of fish, the crow (who was white) came along and asked the crane to give him some; but the latter answered, "Wait a while, until they are cooked." The crow, however, being hungry, kept begging to be allowed to take the fish, only to hear the crane always reply, "Wait." So at last, when his back was turned, the crow started to steal the fish, but the crane saw him, and seizing one of them, he threw it at the crow and hit him across the eyes. Blinded by the blow, the crow fell into the burnt grass, rolling about in pain; and when he got up, his eyes were white, but his body became as black as crows have been ever since. Resolving to get even with the crane, the crow bided his time, and when the latter was asleep one day with his mouth open, he put a fish-bone across the base of the crane's tongue and hurried away. On awaking, the crane felt as though he were choking and tried to get the bone out of his mouth; but in so doing he made a queer, scraping noise, which was all he could do, for the bone stuck fast; and so ever since the only sound that a crane can make is "gah-rah-gah, gah-rah-gah," while the crow has remained black.

Examples of these animal stories might be multiplied almost indefinitely, but enough have been given to illustrate the type. It is to be noted, however, that characteristic as is this form of myth for Australia as a whole, it seems to be especially abundant in the south and east. In the central and northern districts (at least so far as published material is concerned) the prevalent assumption seems to be that just as the world and people have always existed, so the animals have had all their present characteristics from the very beginning. Here again, therefore, we find a distinction between the two main groups of Australia, outside of which this sort of myth is not so highly developed. As has already been shown, Melanesia shows quite a few stories of this kind, but from Polynesia and Indonesia relatively few have been recorded.

Among the tribes of the southern and eastern portions of the Australian continent a number of tales have been reported which deal with beings (sometimes described , as brothers) whom the minds of the people associate more or less closely with the creator deity. One of the most characteristic of these legends introduces an incident of some importance for comparative study. As told in South Australia the story runs as fol-lows. Wyungare, a man whose miraculous origin from ordure has already been recounted, was a great hunter and a hand-some man; and one day, while he was drinking water by drawing it up from a lake through a long reed, the two wives of Nepelle saw and admired him, and desired him for a husband. Accordingly, when he was asleep in his hut, they made a noise like emus running past, and Wyungare, waking, rushed out with his spear, thinking to secure the game; whereupon they greeted him with shouts of laughter and begged him to take them as his wives, which he obligingly did. When Nepelle discovered his loss, he was very angry and went to Wyungare's hut to try to kill the culprits; but since the hut was empty, he placed some fire inside, telling it to wait until Wyungare and the two women were asleep and then to get up and burn them. His orders were carried out exactly, and in the night Wyungare and his new wives were awakened by the flames and just had time to escape from the blazing hut. The fire, however, pursued them, and they ran until they reached a deep swamp, in the mud of which they took refuge; here the flames could not reach them. Dreading further attempts of Nepelle to be revenged, Wyungare looked about him for means of escape, and determining to ascend to the sky, he took his spear and hurled it straight upward with a line attached. The spear stuck firmly, and by means of the cord he ascended and pulled the women up after him, where they may now be seen as stars.

Farther to the north, in northern New South Wales, almost the same tale is told, but with this difference, that the ascent to the heavens was accomplished by throwing a spear into the sky; then casting a second, which stuck in the butt of the first; and so forming a chain of spears which finally extended down to earth and up which the fugitives climbed to safety. A similar method of reaching the sky is also recorded among the Narrinyeri 10 from whom the first tale was obtained, but is given simply as a means by which a person succeeded in climbing to the heavens. It will be remembered that in Melanesia the arrow-chain as a method of ascent to the sky was wide-spread," and the occurrence of the same incident here (substituting spears for arrows, since the latter are unknown in Australia) is certainly significant.

Of equal importance are two tales which would seem to be incomplete and mutilated versions of the swan-maiden episode, which is also widely current both in Melanesia and in Indonesia. The Victorian (?) recension 12 narrates that one day a man who was out hunting surprised a number of winged girls who were bathing; and owing to the fact that he was very handsome, they fell in love with him and became his wives. Nothing is here said of their being sky-maidens or of the usual incident of stealing the wings; but in a version recorded in New South Wales some of these elements appear. According to this form of the tale, there was once a man who was so badly treated by his fellows that in anger he determined to leave them and seek a home in a far country. He travelled for a long way, having many adventures on the road, and at last came to a camp, where there were only seven girls who received him kindly and gave him food, telling him that they had come from a distant land to which they hoped to return. Next day Wurruna, for this was the man's name, left, but after going a short distance, he hid to see if he could not steal one of the girls for a wife. They set out with their digging sticks to get flying ants' nests, and while they were eating the grubs, they laid aside their tools, whereupon Wurruna, sneaking up took two of them. By and by the girls started for home, but two of them, being unable to find their digging sticks, were left behind by the others; and as they were busy searching for their lost implements, Wurruna jumped out and seized them. Though they struggled for a time, they finally agreed to marry him; and for a while they lived happily enough. Then one day Wurruna ordered them to get some pine-bark to make the fire burn better, but they demurred, saying, "No, we must not cut pine-bark. If we do, you will never see us again." Wurruna, angry at their refusal, replied, "Go, don't stay to talk. Do as I bid you, and if you try to run away, I can easily catch you." So they went, each to a different tree, and struck their hatchets into the trunk; but as they did so, the trees began to grow, and since the women clung to their weapons, they were carried up with the trees. Higher and still higher they went as the trees grew upward, and Wurruna, seeing them, ran thither and called to them to come down; but they paid no heed and at last were carried up to the sky. When the tops of the trees reached the heavens, their five sisters looked out from the sky-country and called to them, telling them not to be afraid, but to come and join them. Accordingly Wurruna's two wives, climbing from the trees up into the sky, joined their sisters who had gone back to their own country, and ever since they have remained there with them as the seven stars which we call the Pleiades. It will be observed that in this tale, as in the previous one of the ascent to the sky by the spear-chain, the more northerly version is closer to the Melanesian prototype, so that it would seem as though we might assume a progressive modification of the themes with increasing distance from their approximate source. In this connexion it is especially regrettable that no adequate material is available from Queensland.

By no means so significant as the two groups of myths just considered, but yet of some value for comparative purposes, are the tales in which a person is swallowed by a monster. A version told in New South Wales 14 runs as follows. Byamee, the creator-deity, one day went off to get honey, and his two wives started out to gather figs and yams. While they were enjoying themselves swimming in a deep water-hole, they were seized and swallowed by two water monsters, who then dived deep, and traversing an underground passage, took all the water with them, after which they proceeded down the stream, carrying the waters as they went. On his return Byamee found his wives missing, and setting out in pursuit, he followed down the river-bed, which was now dry, until, by cutting across bends of the stream, he got ahead of the monsters. As they came on, he threw his spears at them and finally killed them, the water gushing forth and refilling the bed of the stream; after which he cut open their bodies and took out the forms of his wives, which he laid upon some red ants' nests. These quickly cleaned the slime off the bodies, and when they stung them, they made the muscles twitch, so that the two women were soon restored to life. Byamee then cautioned them not to bathe again in such deep water-holes, and pointing out the cavities in the ground made by the struggles of the monsters, and now filled with water, said that ever afterward these should be lakes on which many wild fowl would gather; and to this day Narran Lake marks the spot.

Interesting in that its similarities lie far afield is an incident in a tale recorded from Victoria. Among some of these tribes there are quite a series of stories recounting the deeds and ad-ventures of two brothers, the Brambrambult, or two Brams. On one occasion Gartuk, the mopoke, having been badly used by them, resolved to get even, and finding his opportunity when a great windstorm arose, he made a great kangaroo-skin bag, caught the wind in it, and tied it up. In the course of time he thus similarly captured and imprisoned three wind-storms, and taking the three receptacles containing them, he set off for the camp of the Brams. Having found it, he unloosed the bags and released all three storms at once; but when the two brothers realized their danger, each seized hold of a tree to prevent being blown away, while their mother, the frog, took refuge under ground. One of the trees was strong enough to withstand the tremendous force of the wind, and the elder brother was saved by clinging to it; whereas the other tree broke, and the younger was carried off by- the hurricane. When the storm was over, the elder brother sought everywhere for the younger, but all his efforts being in vain, he called upon his mother to aid him. She accordingly pressed milk from her breasts, and this, by flowing in the direction in which the younger brother had been carried, guided the elder Bram in his search, which was at last successful.

Apparently characteristic of the south-east, but showing no resemblances elsewhere, is a legend which might better perhaps have been placed with the animal stories. As told in Victoria, the tale runs as follows. The native bear, when he was still a child, was left an orphan; but the people to whom he was en-trusted did not take any care of him and often, when they went hunting, left him in camp with no water to drink. One day, after they had thus abandoned him, they forgot to hang their water-vessels out of his reach, so for once he had plenty. To be revenged for his previous ill treatment, however, he took all the water-vessels and hung them in a tree; and he also gathered the waters of the streams, and putting them into other vessels, he carried them to a tree, into the top of which he then climbed and which he made to grow until it was very tall. By and by the people returned tired and thirsty from their day's hunting; but when they looked for their water-vessels, they could not find them, and when they went to the stream, it was dry. At last they spied the little bear and all the water-vessels high up in the tree and called out to him, asking if he had any water, to which he replied, "Oh, yes; but I shall not give you any, be-cause you have so often left me thirsty.". Two of the people then started to climb the tree to take the water by force, but when they had ascended a little way, the bear let some of the water fall upon them, thus loosening their hold so that they fell and were killed. Several other men made the attempt, but with the same result; and finally two of the sons of Pundjel came to the people's assistance. Unlike their predecessors, they climbed spirally round and round the tree, so that when the bear threw the water down, they were on the other side of the tree from where he had seen them a moment before. In this way they succeeded in reaching the top, and the bear, seeing that he could not help being caught, began to cry. Paying no attention to him, however, they beat him until all his bones were broken and then threw him down; but instead of dying, he was turned into a real bear and climbed another tree. The two sons of Pundjel then descended, and when they had felled the tree in which the vessels had been stored, all the water there secreted flowed out into the streams, and ever since they have contained water for people to use. After this the two sons of Pundjel told the people that they must never again break the bones of the bear when they killed him nor might they skin him before roasting. To this day the bear still continues to live in trees and will cry whenever a man climbs the one in which he is sitting; and he always keeps near water, so that if the rule in regard to breaking his bones should be infringed, he can again carry off the water of the streams.

Cannibal-stories seem to be less common than in Melanesia. One tale, which appears to be current both in the central area 18 and in Victoria, runs as follows. Two old men, who were brothers, were travelling with a young man who was their nephew; but since the old men were cannibals and planned to kill and eat the young man, one of them secreted himself in a cave, while the other sat down near by. Meanwhile the young man went off to hunt and drove much game down from the hill, all of which ran into the cave where one of the old men was hidden. The other cannibal then called to his nephew to go in and kill the game, which he did, partly by blows and partly by suffocating them with thick smoke from a fire built at the mouth of the cave. After this the old man asked the younger to enter again and drag out the game; and while he was so en-gaged, the cannibal who had concealed himself rushed from his hiding-place and endeavoured to kill the boy. The latter dodged, however, and crept out, telling his other uncle that there was a man in the cave who had tried to murder him. The old deceiver stoutly denied this, and going in, he whispered to his accomplice that he must hide himself elsewhere for a time until their nephew had grown up, lest the latter should kill them both. Hearing them talking, the boy asked who was there; but the old man declared that there was no one else in the cave and said that he was only speaking to an old wallaby, which he dragged out as he came. The boy, however, did not believe it; so the one who had been hidden in the cave came out secretly and concealed himself in another cavern. After a while the same drama was enacted as before; but this time the boy was determined to destroy both cannibals. Accordingly, when the old man who was secreted in the cave struck at him, he again induced the other to enter, and then, piling up a great quantity of grass before the opening and setting fire to it, he smothered them both to death. After they were dead, they ascended to the sky, where they may still be seen as stars.

A second cannibal-tale 20 runs as follows. The members of a certain tribe began to decrease one by one, and hunters and women who went far from camp failed to return, until at last only one family was left. Determining to find out how all their kinsmen had perished, and leaving their old father to take care of the women, the sons set out and after travelling for some distance they met an old man carrying a hollow log, who asked them to aid him to get a bandicoot out of it. They feared trickery, however, and refused to put their hands into the trap, thrusting in a stick instead; and their suspicions were justified, for out came a great snake with a head at each end of its body.

Taking their sticks, they cut the reptile in two, and thus made them as we see them today; and having done this, they killed the old man. Continuing on their way, they came to his hut, where were piles of bones of the people whom he had killed; and going farther, they reached a lake, by which grew a tree. In the tree was a beautiful woman who invited the men to climb up to her; but before they did so, they noticed that the lake was filled with the remains of human bodies, for the woman was a cannibal and enticed men to ascend the tree that she might kill and eat them. Resolved to punish her for her mis-deeds, they went up with care and pushed her into the lake, where she was drowned.

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